WACO, Texas -- Just like every single other game this season, backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham came in late in the fourth quarter to mop up yet another Baylor victory.
This time, though, was different.
On the sideline, starter Seth Russell, the national leader in touchdown passes who had quarterbacked the Bears to five straight 60-point performances, had a towel over his head, clearly aware something didn’t feel right in his neck.
The injury happened so subtly on such a routine run that trainers — and seemingly everyone else watching the game — didn’t even realize Russell was hurt until he complained of a pain his neck after Baylor called timeout to contemplate whether to go for it on fourth-and-1 up 35-20 on Iowa State with a few minutes to go.
Because Stidham had finished every other fourth quarter, it didn’t seem odd that after a field goal had basically put the game away he would finish this one, as well.
But after the game Saturday, as Baylor stars Corey Coleman and Spencer Drango then coach Art Briles took turns at the postgame podium, their collective solemnness revealed the Bears might not only be on the verge of facing their biggest obstacle so far this season, but one of the biggest obstacles any bona fide playoff contender has faced, too.
A couple hours later, the school released a statement that Russell had suffered a bone fracture in his neck, which would require a visit to a specialist.
Essentially putting Baylor’s playoff hopes indefinitely on the arm of a true freshman. And Briles’ penchant for perennially producing pristine quarterbacking to the absolute test.
"This is a tough deal," Briles said of Russell's injury.
Yet Briles and the Bears can take solace going into the off week before taking on a gantlet of a final month’s schedule — if any true freshman quarterback in the country is up to so such a monumental task, it just might be Stidham.
“Stidham is the best young quarterback I've been around," Briles said. "He's very polished.”
That’s saying quite a bit, considering Briles was also around Robert Griffin III, who started as a true freshman then won the Heisman Trophy three years later.
But 6-foot-3, 210-pound Stidham has that pedigree.
Coming out of the same Stephenville High School at which Briles once won four Texas state championships, Stidham was the No. 3 quarterback recruit in the country. In August, he beat out third-year sophomore Chris Johnson for the backup job behind Russell, and in playing in every game this year, has been almost flawless ever since. Stidham also has yet to play a meaningful moment. But he also has completed 24 of 28 passes for 331 yards and six touchdowns for a QBR of 88.2. Only Oklahoma State’s J.W. Walsh has a higher QBR in the Big 12.
“If you’ve got a guy who’s dependable, accurate, intelligent and competitive at the quarterback position, you have the chance to have a really good football team, a championship football team,” Briles said in February on signing day. “When we land a guy of Stidham’s caliber, it gives us the chance to continue at a championship level.”
That moment, though, has come sooner than Briles would’ve thought or hoped.
And even the best of true freshman quarterbacks are bound to endure growing pains. In the final game of the 2008 season, Griffin tossed a late interception that prevented the Bears from upsetting Texas Tech.
That means the question in Waco going forward will be, can Baylor survive the growing pains of a talented albeit inexperienced quarterback to stick in the thick of the playoff conversation?
There’s precedent that it’s at least possible.
Last year, Ohio State went into the Big Ten championship game with its third-string quarterback, who had attempted just 20 passes in his career. But Cardale Jones was no normal third-string quarterback. And in the most pressure-packed of situations, his talent took over; he led the Buckeyes to a Big Ten title that, ironically, put Ohio State in the playoff at the expense of Baylor. Then, he quarterbacked the Buckeyes to a pair of playoff wins over Alabama and Oregon to give Ohio State the national title.
Like the Buckeyes last year, Baylor is primed for a run at the national title at seemingly every other position. Coleman is contending for the Heisman as a wide receiver. Shock Linwood leads the Big 12 in rushing. The offensive line is overpowering, and the defense has NFL-caliber talents in Shawn Oakman and defensive tackle Andrew Billings.
But the Bears will have to earn their way. Still ahead is undefeated Oklahoma State, surging Oklahoma and, of course, a Black Friday date with Trevone Boykin and fifth-ranked TCU.
The Bears had dreams of making the playoff this year. Those dreams are still alive.
But now, they hinge on a true freshman's arm.